By Keith Coffman
AURORA, Colo. (Reuters) - Stephen Barton was settling into his seat at a Colorado movie theater a year ago to enjoy with friends the midnight screening of the latest Batman film, "The Dark Knight Rises," when he heard a popping sound inside the cinema.
"I thought it was fireworks until I felt this immense pressure on my chest," the 23-year-old recalled.
Barton was struck in the face, arm and neck by buckshot unleashed by a heavily armed gunman, and still bears the scars from entry wounds and surgical incisions.
Soon the rapid bursts of gunfire were followed by the wail of police and ambulance sirens, the screams of victims and the grief of a state that has endured two of the deadliest mass shootings in U.S. history.
Fifteen miles from Aurora, Colorado, is Columbine High School, where in 1999 two armed students killed a teacher, 12 students and themselves.
In a matter of hours after the July 20, 2012, movie theater shooting, Aurora, like Columbine, would become shorthand for a U.S. shooting rampage.
When the smoke cleared in the suburban Denver community, the grim reality set in. Former University of Colorado graduate student James Holmes, was charged with killing 12 moviegoers and wounding 58 others, some maimed and paralyzed.
Twelve others were injured fleeing the theater in what Barton described as "a chaotic scene."
Holmes, now 25, who surrendered meekly to police moments after the shooting ended, has pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity to multiple counts of first-degree murder and attempted murder.
Prosecutors will seek the death penalty for the California native if he is convicted at his trial, which is scheduled to begin in February 2014.
COPING WITH HEARTBREAK
Ahead of Saturday's anniversary of the rampage, gun control activists staged a vigil on Friday at a Colorado park. They are reading the names of thousands of gun violence victims from across the country, ending at 12:38 p.m. local time on Saturday, the moment gunfire erupted in the theater.
A gun rights group lobby rallied nearby to protest what they called the exploitation of the tragedy for political gain.
In the year since the shootings, some victims have mourned privately, while others, like Tom Sullivan, have become public faces of the tragedy.
Sullivan's 27-year-old son, Alex, was sitting in row 12 of the theater when the gunfire erupted. A single bullet pierced his vital organs, killing him instantly.
"One minute he was watching the movie, the next he was dead," Tom Sullivan said in an interview.
Sullivan formed a non-profit organization, Aurora Rise, to raise money to help victims of the rampage and to keep Alex's memory alive.
"I am trying to get the message out that this could happen to your son," the retired postal worker said.
The theater shootings, along with the massacre at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, five months later, reignited a national gun-control debate.
Gun-rights advocates argued vigorously passing more legislation restricting access to firearms violated their constitutional right to bear arms and criminals by definition did not abide by laws.
Advocates of gun control have clamored for curbs including background checks on gun purchasers and a ban on sales of powerful assault weapons of the kind used in both the Aurora and Connecticut shootings.
While the U.S. Congress failed to pass gun-control legislation after the shootings, Colorado lawmakers passed a series of gun-control measures - although not without a political price.
Two Democratic state legislators who supported the new laws face possible ouster after gun-rights supporters gathered enough voter signatures to force recall elections in September.
Barton took the opportunity to use his unwanted fame to become involved with New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's organization, Mayors Against Illegal Guns.
The group is touring the country by bus to promote the need for gun-control legislation at the federal level.
"Thousands of Americans have been murdered with firearms since last July but our gun laws remain dangerously lax and loophole-ridden," said Barton, the group's outreach and policy associate. "How many more must die or be injured by a gun before Washington acts?"
(Editing by Tim Gaynor and Lisa Shumaker)